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Stephen Foster, Beautiful Dreamer

While visiting my daughter’s family in Pittsburgh, Pa., in June, I became reacquainted with Stephen Foster and his songs that have enriched people’s lives for more than 150 years.
In 20 of his 37 years on earth, he wrote 286 songs that are still sung today. “My Old Kentucky Home” is the Kentucky state song. Today, parks, schools and streets nationwide bear his name or the title of his songs.
Pittsburgh is proud of her native genius. Stephen Foster Center stands on Main Street downtown, a few blocks from the Foster family home. And the Stephen Foster Memorial is on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. The Lawrenceville Historical Society hosts an annual music festival to honor America’s most revered songwriter at the Allegheny Cemetery, where Foster is buried.
My 7-year-old grandson Oliver and I invited ourselves to the Stephen Foster Center on a warm summer day. It had been a public school once, but today it serves as a day care center and a senior citizen center operated by the Catholic Youth Association of Pittsburgh Diocese.
When we got there, the front lawn was full of kids from 4 to 10 years old enjoying their lunch break — some chasing one another, some going up and down the climbing wall, and a few clumsily playing baseball. Oliver joined them, and soon they played together as if they had been friends all their lives. Sitting on a bench, I wondered if these children knew who Stephen Foster was. What would they tell their own kids about this place when they were older?
Stephen Foster’s melodies are warm and fluid and his lyrics powerful, the reason they were well-loved for such a long time. “Old Black Joe,” for instance, depicts the heartbreaking lives of slaves on a plantation.
Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away, Gone from the earth to a better land I know, I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”
Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain?Why do I sigh when my friends come not again? Grieving for them now departed long ago?I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”
The first time I heard this song was in 1957 at Marian Anderson’s first and last solo recital in Seoul, Korea. Then a teenager, I was overwhelmed by her expressive, compassionate voice and musicality, which made “Old Black Joe” come alive as a real plantation worker in Mississippi.
My favorite, however, is “Beautiful Dreamer,” Foster’s last song, which he wrote in 1863, months before his death.
He lived in Pittsburgh most of his life until he moved to New York in 1860 with his wife and daughter. He died four years later, alone, a broken man suffering from alcoholism and loneliness. He had only 35 cents at the time of his death.
“Beautiful Dreamer” speaks to me in a way other songs can’t because I sense his desperate attempt to escape from his devastating sickness and hopelessness between the lines.
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me, Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee; Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day, Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away! Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song, List while I woo thee with soft melody; Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng, Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea Mermaids are chanting the wild lorelie; Over the streamlet vapors are borne, Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn. Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart, E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea; Then will all clouds of sorrow depart, Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Stephen Foster’s message is, no matter how cruelly life treats us, we must look forward to a better day and dream beautiful dreams until our last breath.